Considering the controversy that consistently surrounded the popular 70s serialized sitcom, Soap, one might have expected its only spin-off to follow in the same tradition. As it turned out, Benson, which followed the career of cantankerous butler, Benson DuBois, was pretty mild by comparison. Fortunately, his razor-sharp tongue remained intact enough to handle the incompetents surrounding him, and endear him to millions of television viewers.
After leaving his former job as butler to the Tate family, Benson took up employment at the Governor’s mansion (of which state, it is never made clear). His boss, the recently widowed Governor Gene Gatling (and conveniently, also the cousin of Jessica Tate), isn’t exactly the sharpest crayon in the box. But he isn’t the most annoying resident at the mansion. Benson also has to deal with the strict and humorless German cook, Gretchen Kraus, and the stuffy chief of staff, Clayton Endicott III.
Luckily, Benson had a few people with whom his relationship wasn’t adversarial including the Governor’s secretary, Marcie Hill and his pint-sized precocious daughter, Katie. With no mom, and a father with an extremely busy schedule, it was up to Benson to provide some parental guidance to the young girl. In return, Katie got to see a side of Benson that few ever saw – the nice guy. Their relationship was reminiscent of the one shared between Benson and Jessica Tate at his previous residence. For, although Jessica was a grown woman, her and Katie shared just about the same maturity level.
After the 1981 season, drastic changes took place at the Governor’s mansion. For one thing, Marcie ran off to marry a television producer (played by a young Ted Danson). And, in perhaps the best “movin’ on up” moment since George Jefferson relocated to the east side, Benson turned in his silver serving tray and took over as the budget director for the state. He even got a new assistant named Denise Stevens. And that job was a mere stepping-stone – he would eventually become the lieutenant governor of Connecticut. Once Benson got a taste for power, there was no stopping him. In the final season, he decided to run against the incumbent, Gene Gatling, in the hopes of becoming the new Governor of his unnamed state.
So, how did the election turn out? Take your best guess. Apparently there was some indecisiveness on the part of the show’s producers. After filming three different endings, one that showed Benson winning, one that showed him losing and one that showed both men losing to a third candidate, the producers actually scrapped all three and, instead, shot a new ending in which no winner was announced.
Benson debuted in 1979 on ABC and ran for seven respectable seasons. The first season was recently released on DVD. It garnered a total of 17 Emmy nominations and won two, one of which went to the show’s star, Robert Guillaume for Best Actor in a Comedy Series.
If part of your 80s prime-time viewing habits included watching Benson each week, we hope you’ll take a moment to share your recollections in our comments section, as we tip our hats to one unforgettable (and rather ambitious) butler.